Books

Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

Chauncey Mabe
South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT)

William Blake stuffed, mounted, museum-ready.


Burning Bright

Publisher: Dutton
ISBN: 052594978X
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Price: $24.95
Length: 320
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-03
Amazon

The historical novelist who decides to write about a famous personage from the past has two possible strategies. Maybe more than two, but in the case of Tracy Chevalier's Burning Bright, which boasts the gaudy bauble of William Blake among its attractions, at least two may be discerned -- the one she chose, and the better one she did not.

The better part lies in rough handling. The author takes up the historical personality like a doll in old-style clothing and, based on historical research and the writer's own sensibility, bends it this way and that to bring it to a semblance of life suitable for the story at hand.

This requires bold decisions about what kind of person the famous figure really was, fixing, thereby, a specific individual in a specific time. Custer in Thomas Berger's Little Big Man is an example of such treatment. So is the Emancipator in Gore Vidal's Lincoln, or the entire Roman imperial family in Robert Graves' I, Claudius.

The other strategy is more reverential. A glamorous if indistinct character is carefully constructed using a few well-known traits -- in Blake's instance, sensuality, mysticism, radical politics, general artsy-fartsiness. This wicker man, by dint of the historical figure's real attainments, then gains an unearned gravity around which orbit the pale little made-up characters that are the story's real heroes and heroines.

Such is the William Blake of Burning Bright. The neighbor children who are the main actors in the novel catch a glimpse of Blake making daytime love to his wife in the garden of his London rental. They see him talking to his dead brother, wearing a red hat in support of the French Revolution, working the printing press in his parlor, chanting poetry in the street.

Those who've read so much as a one-paragraph account of Blake's life will learn nothing new about the great British poet and artist, nor will they gain any provoking insights to chew over. All they'll get is a mildly diverting story in which Blake looms much like the monster in a slasher flick, little seen but always ready to fulfill his ordained plot functions.

This is really too bad. Chevalier first came to notice with 1999's The Girl with the Pearl Earring, a haunting historical set in the household of Jan Vermeer, the great 17th century Dutch painter. She enjoys a reputation for bringing bygone times to vivid life -- a talent that's the most winning thing about Burning Bright.

Blake is a secondary character in the story of the Kellaway family, humble chair makers from the countryside lured to a better life in London after the tragic death of an oldest son. Father Thomas goes to work in the company of Philip Astley, a circus impresario, while mother Anne tries to adjust to grief and her new surroundings.

Teens Jem and Maisie, country mice making their way in Londontown, permit Chevalier to treat readers to a compelling ground-level view of the sprawling, reeking, heartless metropolis, crawling with thieves, drunken workmen, desperate whores, bloodthirsty monarchists, circa 1792.

Befriended by a streetwise urchin named Maggie, they adapt to city life, confront cutthroats and seducers, come under the kindly tutelage of Blake and his wife, move, rather too easily, over the rocky ground of third-act complications to the smooth path of a bucolic denouement.

Chevalier's prose is not rigorous enough for this to be considered as a literary novel, yet the story is plotted with insufficient sophistication to make it much of a popular entertainment, either. Multiplicity of incident, it should be said, is not the same thing as "plot." The London street scenes are presented in strong pictures for the reader's delectation, but images of character and action are too often drawn neither from life nor imagination but from the movies.

"They gazed at each other, until Miss Devine let herself sink back into the shadows, like the moon disappearing behind clouds." That's one image more likely seen at the multiplex than anywhere else. Here's another: "His words froze Miss Pellham, her mouth agape, her eyes wide. Then, as if a strong string were attached to her waist and had been given a great tug, she flew backward into the front room, slamming the door behind her."

As these quotes show, Chevalier's language and descriptions are also overly dependent on visceral reactions: "froze," "mouth agape," "eyes wide." Or how's this for a gut reaction: "Maggie had not heard these words spoken aloud, and they had the effect of taking her clenched stomach and twisting it, knocking the wind out of her as effectively as if Charlie had punched her."

This sounds less like the response of a working-class girl in the 1790s than a scene from last week's CSI. I don't know about you, but these kinds of visual anachronisms and lax stylistic constructions keep yanking me out of the past and undermining the credibility of the characters and their dilemma.

Chevalier is an entertaining writer, the Kellaways and their friends are likable characters, London is a pungent presence. If you squint your eyes, Burning Bright is a painless enough way to spend a few hours. But that's not the same thing as saying it's a very good novel.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

Music

ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.

Film

Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Music

Rush's 'Permanent Waves' Endures with Faultless Commercial Complexity

Forty years later, Rush's ability to strike a nearly perfect balance between mainstream invitingness and exclusory complexity is even more evident and remarkable. The progressive rock classic, Permanent Waves, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Music

Drum Machines? Samples? Brendan Benson Gets Contemporary with 'Dear Life'

Powerpop overlord and part-time Raconteur, Brendan Benson, grafts hip-hop beats to guitar pop on his seventh solo album, Dear Life.

Music

'Sell You Everything' Brings to Light Buzzcocks '1991 Demo LP' That Passed Under-the-Radar

Cherry Red Records' new box-set issued in memory of Pete Shelley gathers together the entire post-reunion output of the legendary Buzzcocks. Across the next week, PopMatters explores the set album-by-album. First up is The 1991 Demo LP.

Music

10 Key Tracks From the British Synthpop Boom of 1980

It's 40 years since the first explosion of electronic songs revitalized the UK charts with futuristic subject matter, DIY aesthetics, and occasionally pompous lyrics. To celebrate, here's a chronological list of those Moog-infused tracks of 1980 that had the biggest impact.

Reading Pandemics

Poe, Pandemic, and Underlying Conditions

To read Edgar Allan Poe in the time of pandemic, we need to appreciate a very different aspect of his perspective—not that of a mimetic artist but of the political economist.

Books

'Yours, Jean' Is a Perfect Mixture of Tragedy, Repressed Desire, and Poor Impulse Control

Lee Martin's Yours, Jean is a perfectly balanced and heartbreaking mix of true crime narrative and literary fiction.

Music

The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D
Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.